Ryan Hay shares
I make little secret of the fact that I love William Butler Yeats. Growing up in Ireland, his faery tale poems and his lullabies were part of my everyday life – at my Catholic First School we learned to recite “Come away, O human child,/ To the waters and the wild,/ With a faery…” alongside our Paternosters. This surely typifies the extent to which Yeats is a National Poet in Ireland (an honor which he now shares, perhaps, with the late Seamus Heaney).
In England, as a Sixth Form student, I became familiar with Yeats the poet: new ideologies, new lines, and new significance to those lines that I have known my whole life were revealed, and the poems sung of an intellectual, a radical, a lover and a father. I was smitten – Yeats, it’s fair to say, had become my first real literary crush. His lines are songs I sing, technical examples for my own writing, markers of joy and consolation, political beliefs to which I adhere, and pretentious Instagram captions. There even exists a picture of him that I turn to again and again for fashion advice (he offers a more disheveled alternative to the quiet beauty of a young Dmitri Shostakovich). As a life coach, Yeats is second only to Meryl Streep, and Morrissey (although Morrissey scrapes his way to his pedestal, dripping with irony).
Being thus besotted with Yeats the poet and icon I resolved, when I revisited Ireland in the summer of 2014, to discover Yeats the man. The National Library of Ireland (NLI) was holding a critically acclaimed exhibition on the Life and Works, and I hung up my reservations about literary tourism and bit the proverbial.
The exhibition was small, but perfectly formed – having put my luggage away in a coded locker that made me feel much more important than I am, I went into the gallery space and was met with a dark room, illuminated only by small LED bulbs, all of which shone inside glass cabinets, illuminating artifacts. What struck me most of all was the sheer volume of manuscripts that on exhibition – manuscripts of ‘The Wild Swans at Coole and of ‘Down by The Sally Gardens’ – are surely near priceless, and yet here they were in this free exhibit. I surprised myself with my own excitement – so much here that his hands have touched, school reports that would once have reduced my parents to tears (not in the good way), portraits by his pre-Raphaelite painter father, incredible correspondence from his life-long interest Maud Gonne (who never requited his love), and…
At this point I have to make the embarrassing confession that I did, in fact, faint in the Yeats exhibit in Ireland’s National Library. I stood up from having squatted to read the inscription on Yeats’ Nobel medal (stored next to a card which read “’appy noo year, wiv ‘opes of enlightenment, EP” – of course a Christmas card that the graying poet received from none other than Modernist high priest Ezra Pound), and when I stood up, I keeled over. On the floor. Blackout. Crash. All very embarrassing, really. Fortunately the shock of my fall jolted me awake, and didn’t leave the security guard long to worry about what sort of serious illness had made a man just shy of 6 foot collapse in a gallery. Awful.
I signed the visitor book promptly and substituted my usual awkwardness or pretension with dad humor “A knockout exhibit – wonderful! (Ryan Hay, aged 18)”. On my way out, I felt a twang of guilt at having not collapsed seeing the Book of Kells the previous day, but Anglo-Saxon monks just don’t have the same sex appeal.